ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's powerful military on Wednesday rejected U.S. attempts to link billions of dollars in foreign aid to increased monitoring of its anti-terror efforts, complicating American attempts to strike al-Qaida and Taliban fighters on the Afghan border.
Although the U.S.-backed government of President Asif Ali Zardari has the final say on whether to accept the money, the unusual public criticism threatens to force its hand and undermine military cooperation with the Americans just as the Pakistani army prepares for what could be its most important offensive against extremists since the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign began exactly eight years ago.
Any breakdown in intelligence sharing and other types of cooperation would hurt the American fight against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO commanders say the war there cannot be won unless Islamabad does more to tackle extremists on its side of the border.
In Washington, President Barack Obama met with his national security team for a strategy session on Afghanistan after signaling that he was not considering a troop withdrawal. The session came amid new polls showing waning support for the war in the United States.
The military's criticism of the bill came in a brief written statement that said senior commanders, including the army chief, "expressed serious concern regarding clauses impacting on national security."
Among other strings, the bill conditions U.S. aid on whether Pakistan government maintains effective control over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions.
Some analysts said the military's statement had little to do with genuine dislike of a bill that stands to help crumbling schools, roads and hospitals. They said the army was sending a message to the Pakistani and U.S. governments about the limits of civilian control in a country that's been subject to military rule for nearly half of its 62-year history.
"Clearly the government is under direct pressure from the army," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn newspaper. "The army's public statement indicates that it is sending a message that says look, we are in charge of security issues."
The military is believed to have increased its cooperation with U.S. forces over the past year, shared intelligence for numbers of U.S. missile strikes on militant targets — most notably the one which killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. The U.S. military clearly hopes for more Pakistani cooperation in hunting down other targets as well, including al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban leaders who are less of a priority for the Pakistanis.
Political tension in Islamabad would pose another obstacle to U.S. war goals. The debate comes as the army stepped up preparations for a new offensive in South Waziristan, an operation that would face steep challenges, ranging from harsh terrain to well dug-in militants. An estimated 10,000 well-armed militants, including foreign fighters, are believed to be in the region.
Opposition lawmakers jumped at the opportunity to weaken a president widely viewed as a U.S. puppet, calling on the government to reject the legislation as an unacceptable intrusion into Pakistan's internal affairs. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute found that 80 percent of Pakistanis surveyed said they did not want the country to assist the U.S. in the fight against terrorism.
The aid bill, which Obama is expected to sign, would triple U.S. nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan, providing $1.5 billion a year over the next five years. U.S. officials say the goal is to alleviate widespread poverty, lessening the allure of Islamist extremists and supporting the country's transition to democracy.
Zardari has championed the legislation as a break from past U.S. aid packages, which he says came with more strings. He says the bill is proof that Washington is committed to helping the country long-term.
But to many here, it is sign of growing — and unwanted — U.S. influence. In addition to civilian aid, the legislation authorizes "such sums as are necessary" for counterterrorism assistance — but only on several conditions.
Those include yearly certification that Pakistan is making a sustained commitment to combating terrorist groups, cooperating in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and that its security forces are not subverting the country's political or judicial processes. Failure to do those things would mean the aid stops flowing.
The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Dick Lugar of Indiana, also calls for strict monitoring of how all the funds are spent. Much of past American assistance to Pakistan has fallen into the wrong hands. Between 2002 and 2008, as al-Qaida regrouped in the country after fleeing Afghanistan, only $500 million of the $6.6 billion in American aid actually made it to the Pakistani military, two Pakistani army generals told The Associated Press recently.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly tried to ease Pakistani concerns.
"Since we are stewards of U.S. taxpayer funds, we have to build in certain consultation mechanisms, monitoring mechanisms," Kelly said. "These are in no way intended to impinge on Pakistan's sovereignty."
The Pakistani military's statement referred to the parliament's deliberation on the subject, which it said would allow "the government to develop a national response."
Hours later, lawmakers began a debate over whether to accept the aid. They are empowered only with making a recommendation to Zardari's government.
"Each and every page of the bill is reflective of the insulting attitude towards Pakistan," said opposition leader Ch. Nisar Ali Khan, part of a chorus of politicians and columnists that have criticized it in recent days. "It seeks to safeguard the interests of the United States."
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was more conciliatory, telling parliament the government would look into the concerns of the military, and had not yet agreed to accept the money.
"We have not done anything so far without consensus and we will develop consensus on this, too," he said.
On a trip to Washington, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi played down the military's statement, calling the aid package the "first, very strong signal of a long-term commitment with the people of Pakistan."
But opposition leaders objected to demands that the country dismantle "terrorists bases" in the southwestern city of Quetta — where U.S. officials say Afghan Taliban leaders are based — and the eastern town of Muridke, the home of an Islamist group implicated in attacks on India.
Another potential sore point is language on nuclear proliferation that calls on Pakistan to provide "direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks." That appears to allude to nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is alleged to have spread nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
The outcry over the bill follows a backlash over U.S. plans to add hundreds more embassy staff in Islamabad.
Almeida and other analysts said that in the end Pakistan was unlikely to reject the aid.
"There'll be a lot of noise, but at the end of the day the bill is about giving Pakistan money, and we need money and we're probably going to take the money, but we're going to do in a way which suggests that we're taking it under protest."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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